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Art-glass makers shape a regional tradition

Post Time:Nov 16,2009Classify:Industry NewsView:442

Ask glass artists about their craft, and they'll use words like ''danger,'' ''fire'' and ''heat.''

''It's an exciting medium to work in,'' says Nathaniel Walker Dubbs, a Bethlehem native now based in Reading. ''There's nothing else like hot glass. It's just this glowing mass of energy.''

Dubbs wants others to be excited about glass as well, so he is part of the Pennsylvania Glass Trail along with six other glass artists in Berks and Lehigh counties and the GlassWorks center at Bethlehem's Banana Factory.

The Glass Trail allows visitors to meet artists, visit studios and learn about art glass. People will learn about the many ways glass can be manipulated. Works range from intricate beads to mosaics to heavy vases.

''There are myriad techniques and styles,'' says trail artist Nancy Sala, who makes glass beads in her Bethlehem studio. ''It's just amazing.''

The Glass Trail started in 2006, and artists have come and gone. This year, stops include the Banana Factory, the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts in Reading and five individual studios. There are several official weekend tours during the year, but most studios welcome visitors anytime with advance notice.

Diane LaBelle, executive director of GoggleWorks, says the two arts centers are excellent bookends for the tour. Dubbs is a studio manager at GoggleWorks, and the Banana Factory's GlassWorks studio employs talented artists such as manager John Choi.

November is the ''Month of Glass'' for the Pennsylvania Glass Trail.

Its signature event on Saturday is an auction called ''Get It While It's Hot.'' Auctiongoers can place bids on pieces while artists make them. Dubbs says there will be 14 teams of artists from throughout the United States. The event will benefit the GoggleWorks' hot glass studio.

There is also an exhibition at the GoggleWorks of objects by Glass Trail artists.

Sala says she is in awe of the versatility glass offers.

Her specialty is a technique called lampworking, in which tubes of molten glass are wound around a steel tube. The name comes from the ancient practice of making beads over oil lamps.

She says most of her inspiration for her glass beads and jewelry comes from nature -- the colors and patterns, like that of bark on a tree. The results include pendants of multicolored spirals, animal-print pens and earrings infused with zigzags and swirls.

''There are times when I go into my studio really early in the morning, and I come up and it's dark,'' Sala says. ''I just lose total track of time in the torch.''

Like Sala, Louise Mehaffey of Wyomissing, Berks County, started making lampwork beads after decades of making stained glass for homes and churches.

Today Mehaffey draws inspiration from historic beads, her love of working with color and the beauty of nature. That's obvious when one sees her beads, some of which have patterns reminiscent of moss and of cave walls. She also makes hollow beads with crushed glass that includes high metal content, creating a distinctive glittery pattern.

Allentown native Dan Gaumer uses a technique called pate de verre to stick glass shards to blown glass. His pieces, displayed in galleries across the country, look like traditional vases and bowls covered with spikes.

''I just wanted to make something that no one else was doing,'' says Gaumer, who runs Topton Glass Works in Berks County.

Dubbs prefers larger works, such as his series of colored glass platters that depict the Bethlehem Steel complex before it became the site of the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem.

First, Dubbs creates the platters in colors such as red and yellow. Real photos are the basis of the images, which are cut out of a kind of rubber. Dubbs sticks the rubber on the platters and sandblasts them so the color comes through where the platter is not covered with rubber.

The plates are large -- 18 to 32 inches wide -- to symbolize the Steel's vast real estate along the Lehigh River, Dubbs says. The mill also looms in his family history.

''My great-grandfather, grandfather, father, uncles, all worked at Bethlehem Steel, and I probably would too if it were still open,'' Dubbs says. ''It's what I grew up looking at.''

The Glass Trail came about in 2006 after LaBelle learned that Pennsylvania tourism officials were developing other artisan trails in the state. She suggested a glass trail because southeastern Pennsylvania had several glass artists who had worked in the area for years.

Reading and the Lehigh Valley have a rich history of glass artistry. Stained glass was important to area residents in the early part of this country's history, and the GoggleWorks takes its name from the building's former life as an optical-glass factory.

LaBelle, former director of the Banana Factory, is working to document the history of glass work in this region.

She says many glass artists work in Pennsylvania because it's an affordable place to live but still close to markets such as New York City and Baltimore. She'd like the trail to eventually stretch across the state, and said artists in the Philadelphia area have asked about taking part.

While some artists say they're benefiting from an increased interest in their craft, Gaumer says he and others are suffering because of the economy. He's considering closing his Topton studio next year.

LaBelle hopes the trail will help Pennsylvania artists to thrive. ''The whole objective is to allow the artists to be financially successful,'' she says.

Source: www.mcall.comAuthor: shangyi

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